Wednesday 28 February 2024

Rambler 204 - The one where Seged tries to be happy for ten days.

 When Samuel Johnson was writing his essays, he had to write two a week. As a result, they cover a far greater range than the initial reader might expect, not only moral pieces and literary criticism but descriptions of character (like Jack Whirler) and even stories. 

It’s a shame that the Penguin Selected Essays of Johnson doesn’t really represent this variety. It seems clear the editor favoured the more serious ones and so didn’t include most of my favourites. (One day, I’ll write about the one about living in a garret, having lived in a few of my own). 

As this year is a leap year, I’d thought I’d look at the Rambler essay Johnson wrote on the 29th of February 1752. It’s a story now entitled, ‘The history of ten days of Seged, emperour of Ethiopia’ (Rambler 204).

This isn’t Johnson’s first imaginary trip to Ethiopia, at the age of 23 he translated A Voyage to Abyssinia, originally by a Portuguese Jesuit called Jerome Lobo, although Johnson translated it from a French version. It had been Johnson’s idea to translate the book, having read it during his time at Pembroke College. He had left university at that time due to lack of funds and was couch-surfing in Birmingham with his friend Edmund Hector. Indeed, it was Hector who did the actual scribing, as Johnson lay in bed dictating a translation. 

Nor is this Johnson’s last imaginary trip to Ethiopia, as he would make it the setting for his novel Rasselas in 1759. The two works also share a similar theme and it would be hard to imagine that Johnson didn’t have ‘Seged’ in his mind when he wrote the latter work.

Despite a little knowledge of Ethiopia, ‘The history of ten days of Seged, emperour of Ethiopia’ is definitely an oriental tale, with very little in the way of actual history or facts. There was no Seged, though it is the name of a Jewish-Ethiopian holiday. Also, much of the story takes place near Lake Dambea, which is now known as Lake Tana, which was a resting place for Ethiopian emperors. 

The story begins with Seged announcing his achievements. These are many and varied, he has brought peace within the country and stability without. He had filled his coffers with the tribute of smaller kingdoms, he has secured his throne against any instability and brought wealth, safety and happiness to all his people. Johnson gives it his full Nebuchadnezzar vibe, throwing down ‘thees’ and ‘thys’ to signify the magnificence and power of the emperor. 

   “Thy nod is as the earthquake that shakes the mountains, and thy smile as the dawn of the vernal day.”

Having achieved so much, people ask Seged if he oughtn’t think about enjoying himself a little. He thinks this is a good idea and declares a palace to be built on an island in Lake Dambea where he can enjoy himself fully for ten days before going back to work. No expense is spared, the buildings are beautiful and the gardens filled with every fine-smelling flower. What’s more an invite is issued to anyone who seems “eminently qualified to receive or communicate pleasure”. There’s great anticipation as all the partygoers sail ‘jocund across the lake”.

The trouble is, when Seged gets there, he doesn’t know what to do first. Whenever he picks a pleasure, he worries he might be missing out on another and so doesn’t actually make his mind up what to do. What’s more, his own indecision and irritability is transmitted to those around him so all he can see are irritable faces. As he sees “the lake brightened by the setting sun”, he realises he’s wasted his first day of happiness on indecision. That evening he tries to force gaiety, despite a deep feeling of regret that a day is gone already. Tired of this he goes to bed early and resolves to be happy the next day.

The next day, he decides that the problem with the previous one was that everyone else was gloomy. So he posts an edict banning anyone who isn’t smiling. This is disastrous, as all the people chosen for their ability to have a good time are too busy trying to look like they are having one to actually do so. What should have been fun and easy conversations now only “obtained only forced jests, and laborious laughter”. When he goes to bed that night, everyone sighs with relief that they don’t have to pretend to be happy for a while. 

That night Seged has terrible nightmares about disasters happening to him and his kingdoms. He awakes terrified and haunted by the dream for half the day. He then realises it’s daft to hold on to imagined terror but is now stricken by the realisation that it’s the third day of his ten day break and he still hasn’t been happy yet. He mulls over this before realising that mulling over it hasn’t made him any happier and that it’s night time again. He goes to bed vowing to be happy tomorrow…

And that’s the story. Essentially, it’s the story of a long looked for holiday. You book, plan, pack and get all excited about the trip. However, the reality of the trip includes things that don’t go fully to plan, or don’t give you all you hope, and the traveller has to decide whether they are happy with what they’ve got or not. Seged’s mistake is to think he can ever have ten fully-utterly-perfect days. It’s very similar to Rasselas in its message, that life can’t be pleasure unmingled with sadness, you have to take one with the other.

Johnson actually followed up this essay with a second, where Seged keeps trying to be happy and a series of unfortunate events keep ruining his plans - but I actually prefer to end it after the first piece, in a conclusion where nothing is concluded and we are left with Seged resolving yet again.

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